I teach at Stuyvesant High School. I’ve been there for almost twenty years. It is the fourth school that I taught at. The others were Deady Middle School, Houston 1991-1992, Furr High School, Houston 1992-1995, and Jefferson High School, Denver 1996-1997.
Stuyvesant High School is known to be the highest performing high school in New York City and is among the highest performing schools in the country. It is a specialized high school that has a screened admissions policy. Since the 1970’s the sole criteria for admissions is a three hour test about math and reading known as the SHSAT.
The demographics of the New York City school system is 41% Latino, 26% Black, 16% Asian, and 15% White. The demographics of Stuyvesant High School are 74% Asian, 19% White, 4% Multiracial, 3% Latino, and 1% Black. 57% of the students at Stuyvesant are male.
Attention to the fact that there are few Black students at Stuyvesant has grown over the past ten years. Starting about ten years ago, each spring there would always be an article in The New York Times about how many Black students were offered admission to Stuyvesant that year. Out of about 800 offers, the number of offers to Black students was around 10, sometimes as low as 7.
The two big questions that these facts raise are: 1) Why are so few Black students admitted to Stuyvesant? and 2) What can be done to increase that number?
These are very important questions and I’m not claiming to know their answers. But I want to use this platform to think about this more and hopefully it will become an opportunity for people to discuss the issues in the comments.
For the record, I am just one teacher who has my own opinions about the relevant issues here. I do not claim to speak for the entire Stuyvesant High School staff of over 200 teachers and I do not even claim to speak for any small subset of that staff. But I am a blogger and I am opinionated and, I like to think, knowledgeable so I’ve felt very uncomfortable over the years keeping silent about this.
So I’m going to attempt a series of posts, maybe 10 altogether, where I pose and try to answer a relevant question related to this issue. Some of these questions I will not have answers for and some I will though they will not be agreed upon by all that I have ‘the’ answer. There are important questions that I haven’t seen ever asked or discussed. Then there are questions that seem to have multiple and contradictory answers if you ask different people. For those kind of questions, it is worthwhile to know the different answers that people believe since it is really hard to discuss something if you do not acknowledge that you disagree on certain premises. An example of a question of this type which I will cover in a future installment is: “Does the SHSAT cover material that students will not have learned yet?” Some people say that it does and others say that it doesn’t. If your opinion on the answer to that question factors heavily into your feelings about that SHSAT test, it is important to know if your answer is correct.
The first question I’m going to pose and address here is one that serves as a good starting point for any discussion like this: “Should there even be a Stuyvesant High School?” I’ve talked to people who think this is a rhetorical question and of course the answer is ‘yes’ and I’ve talked to other people who think this is a rhetorical question and of course the answer is ‘no.’ When two people debate the specialized high school admissions policy, I think it is useful for each person to know how the other feels about this surprisingly complicated question.
By “Should there even be a Stuyvesant High School?” I of course don’t mean should there be a building with a sign that says ‘Stuyvesant High School’ in the front of it. I mean should there be a school where the top performing students in New York City learn together? Whatever your definition of ‘top performing’ might be, do you think that it benefits them to learn together rather than be scattered throughout all the other schools?
Maybe you think “yes, in the ideal, but in practice there is no fair way to identify these ‘top performing students’ so no, in the real world.” But for this exercise, I’m not going to accept that answer. It is a hypothetical that begins with “IF there is some way of identifying the ‘top performing’ students (by whatever definition you adhere to for what a top performing student is), in that case should we put them together in a building and hang a sign on the front that says ‘Stuyvesant High School’?”
Here is my opinion on this hypothetical. You are free to disagree and I would like to see debate in the comments section.
For this first question it is my opinion that ‘yes’ IF there is a way to identify the top performing students, it would benefit them, the school system they are in, and the community as a whole, to have such a school. I doubt this surprises you that I should feel this way. Otherwise how can I come to school each day since April 2002 feeling good about myself teaching in a school that purports to do this.
Though I have heard some interesting arguments to the contrary, I believe in tracking. There is a reason that almost all school separate students into grades. Imagine the extreme opposite of tracking where twelfth graders learn alongside kindergarteners. Few parents would want their twelfth grader or their kindergarteners in a class like that. The other extreme where all students have exactly the same skill level is impossible unless the class consists of just one student and then you have private tutoring. Well private tutoring works very well and most parents would like their children to get the sole attention of a private tutor for some of their instruction at least.
One of the most effective academic interventions is to reduce class size. What are the benefits of the smaller class size though? Well, the teacher can give more time to individual students and help them with the problems that they are having with the material. But a large class size that has students tracked gives some of the benefit of the smaller class size since the teacher can address the needs of many of the students at once since they started with similar skill sets so may be struggling with the same concepts.
This doesn’t just apply to the strict academic subjects. When you sign up for an exercise class they ask you if you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced. If you are trying to get in shape and the gym asks you which class you’d like to be in, would you say “It doesn’t matter. I know the instructor will differentiate.” No, you would choose to be in a class where the other exercisers are at your level and that way you are more likely to get your needs met than you would if the beginner, intermediate, and advanced were all together in one group.
Of course in any class that has more than one student in it, there will be variability within the students and that is something that is great to exploit in a class. Someone with one strength can help someone who has a different strength and vice versa. This happens all the time in any class. But if the levels are too different, the students who are at the higher level become the tutors of the others and while you do learn from trying to explain concepts to someone else, there can be too much of a good thing if that is happening all the time.
So Stuyvesant is a tracked school and even within the school there are tracks within the tracks. There are honors classes and ‘regular’ classes. For eleventh graders there are four tracks of math: precalculus, precalculus honors, advanced algebra (this is the lowest level), and the combined honors precalculus / BC Calculus class. Within each of these classes there are ranges of abilities so we do get the opportunity for students to learn from each other and to share their individual talents and skills. If one of the main goals is for the students to learn as much as possible, this setup definitely contributes to that goal.
I know there are good arguments against tracking. One of my good friends, the executive director of NPE, Dr. Carol Burris, used to be the principal of Rockville Center High School where one of the innovations of the school was to offer all students the IB curriculum. I do respect that this does serve many goals as well. But I still think the pros of tracking outweigh the cons.
I think a Stuyvesant High School should exist for the same reason that a LaGuardia High School, where the top musicians, dancers, and artists, can learn together, should exist. (Here, again, I am talking in the ideal since it is likely that LaGuardia High School has a flawed admissions process, but I do think that it is good to have a school like that if it can be populated fairly). In athletics there are different programs like traveling teams and I think athletes improve when they play against equally matched opponents. And yes I know there are barriers in things like traveling sports teams that make them not inclusive, but for this question I just want to see where you are when we start with the big ‘IF’ it is possible to choose the participants fairly, do you think there is a benefit to tracking them?
So feel free to join in on the conversation. I’ve mapped out about 10 questions where I think this is going, but I’ll likely base the future of this series on what I’m seeing in the comments.